How to Tackle Writing Your First Sequel
So, that plucky little sci-fi novel staring cybernetic vampire mermaids you slaved over for two years has, miraculously, found an agent, been sold to a publisher, rewritten, rewritten again, and finally got the green light from your editor. Congratulations! Your on-spec masterpiece has turned into your debut novel! You are now a professional author.
Now, the really terrifying shit starts.
Because you see, back when your agent sold Blood in the Water they also sold the next book in the series, or even the next two. Books that you’ve probably already cashed the advance checks for, haven’t you? For the first time since you drunkenly sat down and decided to become an author, you actually owe someone a book.
First things first. Don’t panic. There will be plenty of time for that later, when you’re alone, late at night, your deepest fears acting as your only company in the darkness. There’s a reason authors are a notoriously drinky lot. Believe me, no matter how many novels sit in your trunk, this time will feel different. Before this moment, you were the only one holding yourself accountable for you daily production. And good for you, seriously. You stuck with it long enough and held yourself to a standard without anyone looking over your shoulder. That’s not something everyone can do. In fact, it’s probably not something one in a hundred can do.
But this time will be fundamentally different. You’re a professional now. Others are counting on you to produce a quality product in a timely fashion so that all of you can make money. You have a deadline imposed on you by outside forces with their own motivations. It’s back to business, literally.
Maybe you’re prepared for this. Maybe you had always planned “Blood in the Water” to be the entry point into a world spanning thirty novels, graphic novels, and inevitable movie adaptations, all of which you already have obsessively detailed outlines waiting for.
My experience was subtly different. And by that I mean that my debut novel, The Ark, had been conceived, outlined, and written as a stand-alone novel. When I turned the draft over to prospective agents, there were exactly no plans for a sequel, to say nothing of a series.
That changed rather dramatically when a well-respected New York agent emailed me back to say, “I love this! Get me a synopsis of the next two books by the end of the week.” Er. Okay, (furious rewrite of the last chapter to leave open a crack for the next book in the series). Voila! My debut is suddenly the first entry in a trilogy.
Now, it’s not all bad. Yes, you have to answer to other people who have their own schedules which hold little regard for yours. However, for the first time as an author, you also have a multitude of people in your corner. Your agent, publisher, publicist, and editor are all personally invested in the success of your novel. Because your success is their success. Remember, the only way anyone involved makes money in this, from you, to your agent, to the publisher, is if your work sells into the hot little hands of readers. Everyone along the chain wants that to happen for you, because then they get to eat too.
This means giving up some autonomy in exchange for having a support structure. It’s a fair trade, but it means new people have entered the decision loop, and being your first sequel, you’re going to have to keep a level head and accept their judgment more often than not. They’ve been doing this a lot longer than you have, after all. Don’t fight them. Listen. Use their experience and learn from them. This is your on-the-job training to be a career novelist.
Now, a couple of other things you may not have known about sequel writing. For starters, your first book tees it up, but the second book sells the series. Debut novels are often met with a great deal of fanfare and interest from the reading community. But that often dies down after the first book has been on the shelves for a few months. There is an almost unavoidable drop off in buzz and sales between the first and second books in a series as people decide whether to continue with it or not. As a result, the sales figures for a debut novel, even if impressive, have less to do with the publisher’s decision to continue that you might think.
But not to fear. Even if the drop off between the first and second book in a series is steep, publishers have learned through long experience that the people who read the second book are in it for the long haul. The drops between books two, three, four, etc, are much smaller. If you’ve hooked them in book two, you’ve probably got them on the line for the foreseeable future. This is why so many contracts these days are written for two books with an option on the third. As long as sales are strong enough on your sequel, you’re odds of continuing the series are high.
So the pressure is on to create a compelling, fresh story that isn’t just a reheated copy of your first book, while at the same time holds onto the characters and flavor that made people fall in love with your debut. Sounds simple, right? It’s really not. Most debuts are written as stand-alones with self-contained plots to make them easier to pitch and sell. It was certainly true of my own. Second books seldom are. Instead, they try to either continue a plot that had already been seemingly resolved, or try to pick up a loose thread and run with it. They can often start out with confusing direction, and have trouble finding a balance between advancing a story arc in a way that sets up the next book, while also being self-contained enough to be a satisfying read in their own right. Many editors, my own included, have found that second books often require an even greater level of scrutiny and a longer, more involved rewriting process than debuts.
But, some things will feel easier. For one, you’ve already spent months, maybe years walking around in your character’s shoes. You’ve already spent a great deal of time scene-setting and world-building, which opens up a lot of space for you to dig deeper into the plot and characters this time around. It’s not that there’s less to do, but your focus changes.
The important thing to keep in mind while writing your first sequel is although the process may feel different and unfamiliar, you have people now looking out for your best interests. None of these new challenges are insurmountable. Just roll with the punches, keep up with your wordcount, hit your deadlines, and communicate, communicate, communicate. Don’t be afraid of feeling stupid. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. You’ll be an old pro at this soon enough. For now, act like the student you still are and let your team help you stay the course.
I’m looking forward to reading your sequel. I’m a sucker for a good series.